Recently, my brother has been reading The Hobbit to The Princess, who is four years old. The version he’s reading is a comic book adaptation that he’s owned for twenty years, nicely illustrated and falling apart through cheap glue and years of obsessive reading. They’re already on their third time through the story together, and they’ve reached the part that she most struggles with – Smaug.
And in case by some weird happenstance you’re reading this and don’t know the plot of The Hobbit, there are spoilers ahead.
Anyway, the meaning of dragons is different for The Princess from what it was for me at that age. Despite her tender years, she’s already enjoyed a lot of revisionist culture, in which creators play around with roles and expectations. The dragons she knows are Donaldson and Scheffler’s Zog, and Dragon from Jane and the Dragon (both of which I love, but not half as much as The Princess does). These are dragons as heroes, often clumsy but always sympathetic. So the idea of a dragon as villain didn’t fit into her head the first time around, and Smaug’s death was a cause of great distress.
The Princess is over this now. She withstood this astonishing blow to her world view, and still loves The Hobbit. But it was a reminder to me to beware assumptions. Even a timeless monster like a dragon means different things to different audiences.